Back to the drawing board: Arlington School District weighs bond measure again

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ARLINGTON, Wash. -- The phrase "the third time’s a charm" is usually a good thing. But for a school district up in Snohomish County, the third time in this case is heartbreaking, they said.

As Arlington continues to expand, what the school district is noticing is that the expansion comes at a price, more importantly a vote. And it's a vote threshold that's hard to attain.

Eighth grader Kaitlyn Swanson said she loves going to Post Middle School, but she has her concerns.

“When I’m at here at school, I just don’t feel that safe here,” she said. “It feels kind of like unsafe because you don’t know if someone or an animal is coming."

Post Middle School first opened its doors to students in 1981. The design of it may have been fine back then, but in 2019, there are different needs, one of them being safety.

The district says Post is the only school in the district with no interior hallways, meaning if students want to leave, they’ll have to do so being vulnerable to the outside. The doors remained locked from the outside. There’s also no single point of entry like modern schools.

“We definitely recognize that as a vulnerability of this school building is a security concern and we want to correct that,” said Brian Lewis, executive director of operations for the Arlington School District.

The other concern, according to the Lewis, is that the school is not seismically up to current code.

"This building is not designed to the same standards as our other buildings. There’s no steel in the framing, it’s all wood. All of our other buildings have steel frames,” he said.

But there is also a bigger concern.

"The biggest problem with this building, other than the obvious visible ones with all the doorways entering toward the outside, there’s no fire sprinklers in the building,” said Lewis.

Lewis said in order to bring the school up to code, it would require that the district also address the seismic concerns too. But the district doesn't have the money to address those concerns.

There have been three special elections asking voters to pass bond measures, and three times it didn't get the state-mandated 60% threshold needed to pass.

“It’s a little heartbreaking. It’s hard for me to look at these kids and say they didn’t get voted for,” said Voni Walker, principal at Post Middle School.

This latest ask is $96 million, about $11 million less than the previous bond measure.

“It was just enough to be able to rebuild Post Middle School, to add the additional classrooms at Arlington High School that were built into the plans when the school was originally built,” said Walker.

The district says even the classroom heaters at the middle school, which have been around since the school opened, are breaking down.

“Not only do we have to work on them more often to keep them running, but they’re also inefficient. They’re all electric,” said Lewis.

For Walker, she believes some voter misconceptions of what the McCleary decision covered for costs, played a role during the first vote. The thinking, she said, was that voters perhaps thought the decision covered school improvements, which it does not.

But what happened during the second and third vote, that's what Walker calls "the million-dollar question."

“If we can answer that question, then maybe we can tweak things to make them feel comfortable,” she said.

Reaching the threshold remains difficult for many districts. In Arlington, the district felt the numbers for the third time around would make it easier for voters.

"We brought up a proposal to the community last time that would’ve resulted in a tax rate that was similar or less than what we were paying in 2018,” said Lewis.

So what does district do now? It's up to the school board to decide the next steps. But with construction costs rising, the district says time is of the essence.

Principal Walker said despite a majority of voters want a bond passed, this for those still on the fence.

“To really think about the kids sitting in those classrooms that are working hard to give back to our community. They’re our future. And they deserve it,” she said.

Many districts, especially those with property poor districts are having a tough time getting bonds to pass a super majority. Currently, there are two state senate bills being considered.

One would make the supermajority 55% instead of 60 %. The other would make bonds passing, a simple majority.

There is also pushback from some, who say supermajority protects taxpayers. We will keep an eye on how both bills go through the senate.


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